According to The Economist:
The government says there are 21m (16m Protestants, 5m Catholics). Unofficial figures, such as one given by the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in Massachusetts, put the number at about 70m. But Mr Zhao is not alone in his reckoning. A study of China by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, an American think-tank, says indirect survey evidence suggests many unaffiliated Christians are not in the official figures. And according to China Aid Association (CAA), a Texas-based lobby group, the director of the government body which supervises all religions in China said privately that the figure was indeed as much as 130m in early 2008.
If so, it would mean China contains more Christians than Communists (party membership is 74m) and there may be more active Christians in China than in any other country. In 1949, when the Communists took power, less than 1% of the population had been baptised, most of them Catholics. Now the largest, fastest-growing number of Christians belong to Protestant “house churches”.
It is worth noting that even if the optimistic 130 million figure is true, that only represents about 10% of China's 1.3 billion population. Still this is much better than about 1% in 1949 or the current official count of 1.6%. Some further interesting points:
Private meetings in the houses of the faithful were features of the early Christian church, then seeking to escape Roman imperial persecution. Paradoxically, the need to keep congregations small helped spread the faith. That happens in China now. The party, worried about the spread of a rival ideology, faces a difficult choice: by keeping house churches small, it ensures that no one church is large enough to threaten the local party chief. But the price is that the number of churches is increasing.
Of course, doctrinal depth and regularity are hard to maintain in an illegal movement:
Abundant church-creation is a blessing and a curse for the house-church movement, too. The smiling Mr Zhao says finance is no problem. “We don’t have salaries to pay or churches to build.” But “management quality” is hard to maintain. Churches can get hold of Bibles or download hymn books from the internet. They cannot so easily find experienced pastors. “In China”, says one, “the two-year-old Christian teaches the one-year-old.”
Because most Protestant house churches are non-denominational (that is, not affiliated with Lutherans, Methodists and so on), they have no fixed liturgy or tradition. Their services are like Bible-study classes. This puts a heavy burden on the pastor. One of the Shanghai congregation who has visited a lot of house churches sighs with relief that "this pastor knows what he is talking about."
Even more interesting:
All this amounts to something that Europeans, at least, may find surprising. In much of Christianity’s former heartland, religion is associated with tradition and ritual. In China, it is associated with modernity, business and science. “We are first-generation Christians and first-generation businessmen,” says one house-church pastor. In a widely debated article in 2006, Mr Zhao wrote that “the market economy discourages idleness. [But] it cannot discourage people from lying or causing harm. A strong faith discourages dishonesty and injury.” Christianity and the market economy, in his view, go hand in hand.
This doesn't surprise me a bit, nor would it surprise people such as Vishal Mangalwadi who has been pointing out for years that the superiority of the West is due largely to its Christian legacy.
Via: Christian Freedom International.
NOTE: When searching for the article (CFI did not provide a link) I found this article on the decline of capitalism in China. So the news is not all good. However, as Christianity continues to advance, expect to see both the doctrinal issues noted above and the residual economic and social issues become less severe.